What does it mean to be present or to hold strong presence or space for someone? As a licensed professional counselor, I do this for my job. Essentially holding space for someone means sitting with full focus and offering a safe container for the flow of unconditional love. This type of presence allows the person to simply show up — just as they are — to explore whatever is going on in their lives, without judgment or expert advice on how to fix the messiness of what it means to be a vulnerable and sensitive human being. Deep listening with mindful awareness contributes to an openhearted supportive exchange of energy that honors and respects whatever needs may arise.
During the holiday season the demand for presence picks up. I would go as far as to say that presence could be considered a universal expectation driven by the desire to feel particularly connected to loved ones — or at least to someone—during this season. If red flags are showing up with the use of the word “expectation,” pat intuition on the back and revel in your knowing that expectation, as well as assumption, inevitably does lead to disappointment. This situation — where disappointment becomes a looming outcome — can ignite other neuropathways linked to lack, abandonment, rejection, abuse, unfairness, fault, blame, shame and all forms of traumatic memory. When this happens, the desire to connect authentically with love is so powerful, yet can feel so out of reach in the abyss of such memory. Therefore, depression, grief and anxiety prevail within the soul’s longing for the joy it feels it cannot or doesn’t deserve to have.
Not everyone experiences hopelessness or despair during the holiday season. Some people have a strong foundation of support and love rooted within themselves, their spiritual practices and within their family systems. They feel a connection to community and know that others have their backs. Celebrating with joy makes sense within the arms of such support.
Disparity of circumstances and feelings during the holidays, however, is a reality and can create quite a bit of confusion with regards to how to move forward with presence for all. Author Denise Fournier, Ph.D., in a Feb. 12, 2018, Psychology Today article, reinforces this challenging predicament.
“We live in divisive times, which complicates and challenges our capacity to communicate clearly and compassionately with each other. It’s all too easy to get so committed to one way of looking at things that any other view becomes impossible to acknowledge, let alone accept,” she wrote. “This makes for interactions which are guarded, at best, and destructive at worst. We all run the risk of letting our judgments interfere with our ability to connect to others, even if the so-called others are people we know and love”.
Here are some ideas from the article to help support efforts to cultivate a more supportive presence:
Be aware of ways in which you communicate, especially through your tone, timing and body language. Are you in alignment with your words? Meaning do you say what you mean and mean what you say? Also, keep in mind that holding space doesn’t require many words.
Get curious. Curiosity can be the antidote to some of the dysfunctional ways we communicate with each other. Leaning in with curiosity rather than pulling back in fear or disgust creates the space for feeling seen, heard and understood.
Practice genuine listening. Listen to be understood, rather than to respond. Practice reflecting back what the person has said to you, rather than distracting away from presence by thinking about your own response to what they are saying.
Kindness. Kindness goes a long way. Radiating warmth while holding space is sincerely appreciated by all beings. Be the source of light when strong opinions keep company with darkness.
Lastly, how you show up for yourself — in whatever way you are presenting — is directly connected to how well you are able to show up for others. Self-compassionate or self-love practices teach the pearls of wisdom for presence. Are you the witness or the judge of yourself? Counseling can be helpful for releasing blocks from imprinted negative self-talk and self-judgment, while also creating new neuropathways that open the heart for holding space and being present for yourself and others.